It may seem odd to spot a hunter holding a rifle in the bed of a grain trailer parked behind a tractor in a soybean field. But that’s exactly where Bill Cannon's guide had put him on one of the first Farmers Manage Deer hunts; the guide was the farm's owner, Chandler Worley.

“I saw at least 50 deer in the headlights while driving into one of the fields in the morning,” Cannon said. “I hunt deer in Croatan National Forest, and it’s a lot easier to hunt them here.”

Cannon took four deer while hunting Worley's farm near Fair Bluff in Columbus County, one of 12 counties with landowners¬† participating in the program — but the one with the most acres enrolled.

During the first two weeks of the Eastern Region gun deer season, hunters attempted to harvest deer on 4,000 acres of private property in Columbus county. Ninety hunter opportunity slots were available, with some hunters selected for both weeks.

  Twenty-five landowners enrolled 15,875 acres in Beaufort, Columbus, Bladen, Duplin, Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Onslow, Sampson, Wilson, Person and Wayne counties. The hunters signed up through a website set up by the N.C. Department of Agriculture ( Farmers Manage Deer was a coordinated effort made possible by the N.C. Wildlife Commission, N.C. Hunters for the Hungry, N.C. Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association. It was funded through a $150,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission to the N.C. Wildlife Federation; Guy and Judy Gardner are the program coordinators for the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

“We had 403 hunters selected out of the 4,835 who signed up to hunt private lands through the website," Judy Gardner said. "Ninety percent of North Carolina land is privately owned, and there is a tremendous demand by hunters who want to hunt on private land. In Columbus County, we harvested 79 deer in two weeks. It was short of our goal, but the hunters are definitely having a positive impact. We left enough voucher tags for hunters to continue to make donations of deer for processing through N.C. Hunters for the Hungry."

Gardner took five deer during the hunt and was among the hunters who donated 836 pounds of venison to Cherry Grove Baptist Church's charitable food pantry. Hunters donated the venison after they had collected enough for their own needs.

Farmers Manage Deer has several goals, with an overriding purpose of bringing income from hunting into communities hit hard by the loss of tobacco production. Gardner estimated the hunters had an economic impact of $10,000 per week in Columbus County alone. Other goals included donating venison to the host communities and reducing crop depredation.

Hunters paid $10 to cover liability insurance, and Farmers Manage Deer paid farmers a lease fee of $2 per acre. The program will last two years. Thereafter, Farmers Manage Deer will facilitate ongoing lease or guided hunting arrangements between hunters and participating landowners.

“We have a lot of deer season left to fill our deer-harvest goals,” Worley said. “These hunters are having a positive impact, because they have harvested at least 50 deer within a half-mile of our fields. I had one 40-acre soybean field that sustained a loss of $12,000 because of the deer.

“The hunters were required to hunt from elevated stands for safety, and there was not a good tree for setting up a stand in some of the fields. Deer are so used to seeing grain trailers and trucks that they did not pay them any attention when there were hunters in them. It worked very well.”